Wednesday, May 28, 2014

perceptions, masculinity, and politicizing tragedy: some thoughts without conclusions


"Is it safe in the U.S.?"

Last year, I helped a Jordanian friend apply for a Fulbright to America. The application form asks where applicants would be willing to live: urban or rural? Diverse or homogeneous? East Coast, West Coast, South, or Midwest? My friend asked where would be the safest. He'd heard about shootings in the U.S., and--even though he lives a few hours south of one of the world's most vicious warzones--he perceived America as considerably less safe. 

Violence speaks louder than peace, and violence in America (particularly white, affluent America) speaks louder than violence elsewhere. Later that month, I sat in Syrian refugees' apartment in Amman, watching coverage of the Boston bombings on Al-Arabiyya. One minute I saw images of Boston on lockdown; the next, I saw images of carnage in Syria. It was surreal.

A life is a life, and tragedy absolutely deserves coverage no mater where it happens. I understand that the shock value of violence in ordinarily peaceful places--like Boston or Isla Vista--will get disproportionate attention relative to, say, war in the Central African Republic or gang violence in South Central LA. Lots of ethical implications here, but also questions about how America is being presented to the world, and about how the world is being presented to America. For pithy, pertinent comic relief, click here.


The Isla Vista shootings dominate my newsfeed. (Sidenote: I'm incredibly grateful to have a bunch of smart, thoughtful friends who curate the news for me.) I'm reading lots of articles about gun legislation, feminism, and--a welcome addition!--masculinity. It feels a little gross to intellectualize tragedy but, I suppose, it's also a way of dignifying its severity. More on that below.

For now, I'm appreciating discussions of women's safety considered in the context of masculinity and its perversions. I get the sense that we talk about "what it means to be a woman" more than "what it means to be a man." This is unfortunate because, ultimately, a safer, fairer world demands a re-evaluation of how society treats women and men. No amount of activism against harassment or unequal pay can achieve success without also considering the ways in which society hurts/devalues men. Guys are much more likely to commit suicide, be sent to die in wars, and be told not to feel.  Don't get me wrong: the world's a crueler place for women, hands down. (If you have any doubts, check out #YesAllWomen.) That said, this can't be fixed without dealing with the world's cruelty to men, as well. They're inextricably linked.

I sometimes worry that discussions of misogyny leave out discussions of masculinity, dangerously characterizing the problem as a battle of women vs. men. But there are no trade-offs here; consideration of gender as a whole can be a win-win. In fact, I'd argue, it's the only way forward.

Within the context of the Isla Vista shooting, accessible articles like this one and this one break down the ways in which societal pressures on guys may contribute to a less-safe world for women.  So while I'm fiercely supportive of women-centered groups like HollaBack and HarassMap, I suspect their goals are best achieved when also engaging men and tackling masculinity.

Politicizing tragedy (and communicating in general).

When the news reports something sad, and the sad thing validates one of my policy preferences, I'm tempted to get political. Destroy all guns! (And sharp objects!) End all wars! Eat less meat! So while I hope that times of crisis can promote dialogue, I also recognize my own tendency to slip into emotional justifications of things I already believe in.

One realization keeps me (somewhat) in check: emotional arguments rally natural allies, but rarely engage people with different opinions. Rallying post-tragedy feels opportunistic; engaging, on the other hand, has the potential to be productive. So that's my goal these days. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

things that happened this week: being a woman, Ambassador Ford, and what are you?

I wasn't going to write, but then I felt guilty, because I'm a woman. Not that women are more predisposed to guilt, or that I feel guilty for having two X chromosomes. They're alright. But there's been a lot of discussion lately about how women don't put their voices out there enough, and how there's a massive gender imbalance in the foreign policy world. So, on behalf of my gender, I write to you today.

Something cool that happened this week: I got to see/hear/almost talk to Robert Ford, America's former ambassador to Syria. Politics aside, I have mad respect for Ford. He's got great Arabic--rare for an American diplomat--and, at pretty substantial risk, kept the American Embassy open in Syria well into the conflict. More than that, he didn't stay inside. Instead, he would travel to protests to learn about the situation on the ground. Given Assad's crackdown on reporters, Ford's efforts were instrumental in conveying news to the outside world.

Ford's talk at the Wilson Center was predictably bleak; no one seems to have any optimism for Syria anymore. After the talk, he was approached by a small group of Syrians and Syrian-Americans, who asked him how many more people needed to die before the U.S. would intervene.

Ukraine has dimmed hopes of a political solution co-orchestrated by Russia, but perhaps there is an opening through Iran? That is the only thing I can think of at the moment. Ford emphasized the need for Syrian opposition members to reach out to Alawis in Syria--a critical step but not something we're seeing right now. Instead, it seems like people are just doing whatever they can to survive--whether that means endorsing local cease-firesselling oil, or just leaving the country altogether.

On a lighter note...

Something strange I realized this week: in DC, I'm ethnic. As a pale white girl with brown hair and blue eyes, I really haven't faced this before. Growing up in California, I used to envy my peers who got to fill in non-white bubbles (often multiple!) when identifying their race/ethnicity on school forms. In the Middle East, I blended in pretty seamlessly. But here, for whatever reason, I get asked "what's your background" or "what are you" pretty regularly.

Don't get me wrong; I know that my experience is indescribably less challenging than the experiences of my friends who filled in different bubbles on school forms. It's hardly comparable. And it's probably useful to society that I'm experiencing this, because it helps me begin to comprehend what it feels like to "look different."

Nonetheless, it's become annoying. The first few times I was flattered (who doesn't want to be confused for Italian?!) but, after a while, I grew tired of having to define myself. It's tricky enough to figure out how I feel about my religion/ethnicity/white guilt/whatever, and I don't like having to distill it all into a digestible sentence or two, sandwiched in between small talk and pleasantries. If you'd like to talk about this stuff, awesome, but it will take a few coffees worth of conversation.

I'll end with my favorite picture of the weeka Turkish flag eating the Twitter bird, symbolizing Erdogan's ban on Twitter. But look, the bird lives!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

let's write again?

It's been awhile. I'm still in the states, a quarter of a way through a grad program, and somewhat settled in DC (though still emotionally connected to the Levant).

Two reasons for picking this up again:
  1. I read my friends' blogs. As someone both lucky and cursed to have good friends scattered across the globe, I've found that--aside from, you know, actually talking to people--reading friends' blogs is a key way to continue feeling close to them. I try to keep my online presence free of demographic details and intimate feelings, but, hey, maybe I can still offer something in return for my friends' thoughts and stories. 
  2. Someone at my work told me that, when hiring me, it was useful to see that I had a blog. Okay.
Nothing profound to report, so, instead, pictures!

My Life: a Photoessay
by Tara.

I live near a water feature 
...that sometimes freezes.
I go to a university with a lot of brains...or at least fruit-like things that look like brains.
(The one on the bottom is me.)
There's a good deal of history around. (This is Harper's Ferry.)
...though I spend my time photographing (strangely anthropomorphic?) squirrels

...and having existential moments

...and looking for free food. 

Okay, enough narcissism for now. If you've made it this far, I'll admit that there's a reason number three why I'm writing again:
3. I find it infinitely easier to describe what I don't know than to describe what I do know. I can tear apart an argument with confidence, but articulating something definite and standing by it makes me queasy. In a world where very little gets done, and where I seem to disagree with a lot that's going on, I suspect I'll be a better functioning member of society if I address these two stumbling points. So here's to trying.
Feel free to check back from time to time if you'd like to read my thoughts on the Middle East, DC, squirrels, etc. If not, no worries, I'll continue writing anyways; I can always count on a core audience of my mom, dad, the NSA, and computer robots. Hi guys (:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

words I can't live without

I'm (recently) back stateside, and only slightly reeling from reverse culture shock. My time in Switzerland last month served as a pretty decent decompression zone after a year in the Middle East. I re-learned how to cross streets at crosswalks, wait in single-file lines, and accept prices without trying to negotiate for something cheaper.

By far one of the toughest things for me has been adjusting my vocabulary. There are some Arabic words that I don't want to live without--words that manage to capture meanings efficiently, and words that capture meanings English can't approximate.

I've mostly switched over to (rough) English equivalents of these words and phrases, but, if you encounter me late at night speaking (seeming) gibberish, this is a clue to what I'm trying to say.

  • khalas-enough/that's it. A value-neutral word. A not-entirely-impolite way to indicate you're ready to end a discussion. 
  • yaani--literally "it means." One of those lovely filler words like "like" and "I mean." Most often used when I'm struggling to speak in Spanish (multilingual fail).
  • shway shway--little by little/slowly slowly/small (quantity). Most often used when describing my process of learning Arabic.
  • inshallah--god willing/hopefully/maybe. Maybe I really want something to happen in the future. Or maybe I don't. Adding "inshallah" to the sentence preserves that ambiguity while humbly acknowledging human fallibility. 

  • aadi--ordinary, it's no big deal. Yaani, if you step on my foot, but it's not broken or anything, I might say "aadi."
  • bas--but/only/just/that's it. 
  • bshoofik/bshoofak--I'll see you! A useful word to insert into long goodbye sequences. Add an "inshallah" if you're not really sure if you'll see the person again.
  • keefik/keefak--How are you? But with fewer syllables.
  • tufuduli/tufudul--go ahead/help yourself/after you.
  • ze ma bidik/ze ma bidak--as you like. A lovely way to deflect a decision to another person, under the guise of politeness.
  • habibti/habibi--"my dear," but less matronly.
  • wallah--I swear (to god)/really. 
  • alhamdulillah--thank god. An expression of relief or gratitude. As in "I got on the wrong bus but I eventually made it home, alhamdulillah.")
  • mashallah--wow. (But wards off the evil eye.)  Tara writes amazing lists, mashallah.
  • yalla- how on earth could I almost forget yalla? It means "let's go," "come on," or, when ending a phone conversation, it serves as a warning that you're about to say bye. Example: Ok, ok. Ok, yalla, bye! *click*

Here's to hoping we all manage to communicate.

p.s. Aspiring Arabic learners, travelers to the Levant, etc: master a few of these words and, wallah, you'll get major bonus points.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


I spent this morning at home, actively neglecting emails and recycling old wine (read: vinegar) into a hearty tomato sauce. While washing dishes, my doorbell rang. And continued ringing. There's a boy's school nearby, so I thought maybe some kids were messing with me. I peered out my peephole but couldn't see anyone. I cracked open my door just enough to see outside (and hide my uncovered legs) and found a young woman, a little girl, and an older woman on the steps of my apartment.

Hey. The young woman explained that she was Syrian, pregnant, and needed anything I could give her. I was a bit flummoxed, and asked if I could pass on phone numbers of people and organizations that could help her. I know someone, for instance, who distributes baby kits to Syrian refugees here in Jordan. But the young woman did not have a phone. In retrospect, I ought to have written down numbers for her, directed her to an NGO in the neighborhood, and called the baby-kit-distributing woman myself. But I didn't think clearly and was worried about tacitly inviting many more people to come to my house. So, instead, I gave the little girl a bottle of water and wished the women well.

I feel horrible. More than that, I feel bad for saying I feel bad: why am I focusing on my own discomfort, rather than the struggles of those around me?

This isn't the first time I've been approached by Syrians struggling in Amman. A few weeks ago, I visited a  restaurant in Jebel Hussein. It had opened recently, and boasted the Syrian versions of fuul (full beans and extra garlic) and falafel (doughnut-shaped). Shortly after I finished my food, a little boy came up to me, holding a laminated piece of paper. I bent down to say hello. The paper, I realized, was his family's copy of their UNHCR registration--a paper listing the names of his family members and an official UN stamp certifying them as refugees.

Confrontations with difference in privilege are hardly confined to Amman. Growing up in California, I grew used to seeing homeless people on street corners, grew used to the jarring contrast between their lives and my own, and grew used to driving by, justifying my decision by affirming the importance of donating to organizations rather than individuals. Who knows.

Okay, mundane moralism. You've heard this before, but I still have to ask: why the hell was I lucky enough to be born where I was born? Why have I gotten to live a life of relative security and comfort? I'm grateful beyond grateful that I've never had to flee my home and that the only lethal gunfire I've heard has been of the Hollywood variety.

Here's to hoping I remember my luck, and am a bit more prepared to help people out in the future.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

employ/admit/accept/like me....please?

I've been fairly preoccupied with applications lately--mostly for graduate school, but also for work. Point is, I'm distributing my C.V. to anyone who'll look at it. Including you! (Mideast posts to resume shortly, inshallah.)

--- --- --- ------ --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

B.S., School of Life, 2012
GPA: Not so hot
Test Scores: Smart enough
Rec Letters: I think I can get a prof to like my facebook status?

Work Experience:
Swim Coach. 6 years of progressively less-wet employment. (I don’t get in the water anymore.)
-          Convinced small child to put his face in the pool
-          Dealt with crying people—male and female, ages 5 to 20-something
-          Successfully maintained relationships with feuding families.

Babysitter. Twice.
-          Equated years of supervised play with brother to “babysitting experience”
-          Stole crackers and peanut butter from the cupboard while the kids slept

Sister. 20 years.
-          Communicate regularly with the only technology-adverse teen on the planet
-          Share things
-          Forge alliance against parents, often to procure goods, such as ice cream.

Friend. Off and on.
-          Belatedly reply to emails

Nerd, mother tongue.
Northern California Slang, professionally proficient (see: Swim Coach).
Sarcasm, beginner.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

a few days in Tel Aviv

Tara at the bomb shelter.
Smile, Tara, at least you have a bomb shelter!

I've been seething, furious. It's easier (more dignified?) to get angry than to cry.

I spent last week in Tel Aviv--just north, actually--watching the latest Gaza-Israel conflict break out. I'm used to following this process from afar. I check the news and sift through social media, where angry posts from pro-Palestinian activists alternate with angry posts from die-hard Israel supporters. Maybe I read a press release from the White House. Write a letter to a representative. Go to sleep.

I arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday evening, just in time to visit my friend's class at IDC Herzliya. The class was taught in English, and the students, half international, were on their laptops. During break we stole food from a neighboring event and chatted a bit. "There's gonna be a war," someone said. A Hamas leader was killed in Gaza, someone else confirmed. One Israeli guy in the class was drafted to Gaza the following day, and all of the other Israeli guys in the room were summoned back to the army. 

When we returned to class, the lecturer--a visiting professor from Harvard--awkwardly acknowledged the class's distractedness. "We don't live in a bubble," he said.

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time in my friend's apartment. I had come to Tel Aviv for a wedding, but opted not to go because I was afraid of travelling south. At home, in the apartment, we checked the news constantly. Where had the latest rocket hit? Who had friends there? Were they safe? Rockets made it to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Were we in range? I learned what to do if I heard a siren, and located the nearest bomb shelter. The stairwell, I learned, was the safest place in the building. The ground floor was more dangerous, because it had lots of windows.

Intermittently, I slowed down to read whole news articles. I checked Al Jazeera, not just Haaretz. It was hard, while in an apartment above a bomb shelter, to find the emotional energy to read about the suffering in Gaza--the latest tally of Palestinians killed, the latest IDF activity. I was shocked by how quickly my orientation shifted, how seamlessly I had switched to an Israeli set of questions, news sources, and fears. No matter your political orientation or philosophy, personal safety comes first. And when you feel threatened, it's difficult to find the capacity to think of others--even those who are undergoing far worse.

On Thursday, the day I was supposed to go to the wedding, I stayed in Herzliya. My friend heard about a campaign going on at school, and I accompanied her to campus. A number of students were participating in "hezbara"--an advocacy campaign on behalf of the IDF. I realized this wasn't my scene, and started another project in the classroom next door.

My friend and I were desperate for something constructive--communication that could transcend the predictable, "soccer match" reporting dominating the media. We wanted to focus on the human impact of the conflict, in the hopes that, unlike traditional media/advocacy which merely "rallies the base," we might be able to encourage people to listen to each other.

So we started a YouTube channel dedicated to collecting the human voices of the conflict. We're calling it "OnTheGround2012," and we're asking people affected by the conflict to share their stories and, in particular  their hopes. We were inspired by the Hope Man Peace Man blog of the last Gaza War, and by the Israel loves Iran/Iran loves Israel media campaign this summer.

By collecting stories from both sides, I don't aim to paint equivalencies--we all know who's being hit the hardest. I don't anticipate we'll solve any political problems. But I'm eager to try to humanize this conflict a bit. Because it's so easy, when reading the news from outside, to lose track of the human reality. And it's so easy, when hanging out above a bomb shelter, to focus only on your own safety. 

Anyways, family and friends, I'm back in Jordan. The protests have calmed down here, so I'm quite safe. I've returned to watching the Gaza/Israel from a distance. I'm hoping that this all ends soon.

UPDATE: the idea (while noble!) was ultimately a flop. Turns out my friend and I were a bit less connected than we originally thought, plus there was the hurdle of getting people to talk without fear of retribution. Also, the electricity/internet situation in Gaza was not conducive to video uploads...But hey, worth a try! If anyone else knows of similar initiatives, I'd be eager to contribute.